By Park Jae-hyuk
About 180 Korean Air pilots will go on a 10-day strike today, calling for a 29 percent wage hike, the Korean Air Pilots Union said Wednesday.
It is the first walkout by the union since December 2005 when Korean Air cancelled more than 1,000 flights and suffered more than 200 billion won ($167 million) in losses in just four days.
The country’s largest airliner cancelled 148 flights this time, including 12 cargo flights.
Despite the strike, the company said it will maintain an operation rate of 97 percent for international flights, 90 percent for flights to Jeju and 72 percent for other domestic flights.
Korean Air has halted 24 international flights departing from Incheon International Airport. Their destinations include Narita and Osaka in Japan, Hong Kong, China, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and cities in Saudi Arabia.
Other international flights bound for cities in America, Europe, Oceania and Southeast Asia will operate as usual. The air carrier has also grounded 112 domestic flights connecting airports at Gimhae, Ulsan, Yeosu, Jeju and Gimpo.
According to the company, passengers who booked the cancelled flights will be offered alternative ones or get refunds.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said it will send inspectors to Incheon and Gimpo airports to check the company’s safety measures, including rest time and pilot’s qualifications
Pilots belonging to the union are demanding a 29 percent increase in wages, while the company argued the pilots could not demand more than the 1.9 percent agreement between the company and the general employee union.
“The pilots’ demands are nonsense, as Hanjin Group has sustained losses for years,” an official of Korean Air complained. “They want an increase which amounts to almost the same as the annual wage of a general employee.”
Korean Air pilots earn an average of 150 million won in wages.
Rapid growth of Chinese airlines is one of the biggest reasons pilots are demanding higher salaries. As more Chinese airlines need expert pilots, most of them offer about 250 to 350 million won in annual salaries to Korean pilots.
Pilots, however, claim that their strike is due to their disappointment with the company, rather than the wage issue.
“Many pilots are disappointed with the owner family’s misconduct,” a Korean Air pilot said. “Although Chinese firms offer higher salaries, it is still difficult for most pilots to decide to move to other countries, as they have lived in Korea more than 30 years.”
However, critics claimed that most pilots hesitate to leave Korea because Chinese airlines’ welfare incentives are poorer than Korean airlines and most pilots who work for Chinese airlines are 3-year contract workers.
Korean Air said the company is still in negotiation with the union and are trying to come to an agreement.
According to Daishin Securities, the strike will cut the company’s sales by 4 percent and 10 billion won of operating profits.